In a world where we are constantly on our smartphones, have access to 24-7 emails, social media and receive notifications on a range of devices, it is little wonder that it is increasingly difficult to switch off from our workplace.

We once took our holidays and knew that our precious time with family and friends wouldn’t be interrupted by work, but that has become a very rare occurrence and adds to the burnout problem.   Do we ever actually completely switch off?

It came as no surprise to me that the World Health Organisation recently added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is defined in ICD-11 as follows:

Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

It is characterised by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job;
  • reduced professional efficacy;
  • Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life

Let’s take a deeper look:

Burnout comprises of profound physical, cognitive, and emotional fatigue that undermines an individual’s capacity to work effectively and feel positive about what they are doing. It’s a state of absolute exhaustion, where you find that you’re unable to concentrate. Tasks that you previously enjoyed are now gruelling, and you find it near impossible to drag yourself both in and out of the workplace.

Many people may not realise that they are dealing with burnout, rather they believe that they are just struggling to keep up during stressful times. Stress, however, is usually experienced as feeling anxious and having a sense of urgency, while burnout is more commonly experienced as irritability, increased frustration and reduced energy.   Severe burnout can also result in self-medication (such as alcohol and other substances), cynicism, negativity and debilitating self-doubt.

What to do?

If you are suffering burnout the last thing I recommend is adding more tasks to your already busy schedule.  We read tips like take on a yoga class, get some professional development, toughen up, get another job, etc, but this can often exacerbate the problem by adding more pressure.

  1. Tame the Inner Critic

Everyone has an inner critic who says, “you’re not good enough”. The critic is fed by negative messages about who you ‘need’ to be or what you ‘should’ be doing in order to be worthy, smart, successful, etc.  With burnout the inner critic might have even convinced you that you need to stay motivated and stop being lazy.  Awareness is the first step to recognising and challenging of the inner critic. Many of us don’t even realise its presence.   When talking about burnout, an example might be choosing between leaving work on time to spend time with your family or staying late so that you can get more work done. The inner critic will tempt you to stay late, telling you things like “you should catch up on your work” or “you are going to lose your job if you don’t stay late.”

Recognise it, challenge it and check for the facts…  it’s usually not true, in fact the inner critic is prone to telling fibs.    

  1. Turn off your notifications

If you’re a late-night technology user, it’s important to set some ground rules for usage closer to bedtime.  Everything about your phone is supposed to make your life easier but what it’s really doing at night before bed is the exact opposite. It’s distracting you, keeping you awake, stimulating your brain and delaying sleep.

  1. Talk to a trusted colleague

A great first step is to confide in a trusted colleague or speak with a family member or friend about what you’re feeling. The act of articulating what’s really going on, is essential in to getting the support you need.  Sharing your challenges can also help take the weight off your shoulders. 

  1. Expect to be uncomfortable

Even if you communicate with your boss effectively, talking about burnout is a scary step to take. Employees suffering from burnout are often afraid of disclosing there is a problem. They may feel they should be able to handle the pressure or should just toughen up.  Often employees worry if they admit they are struggling, their employer will simply replace them.

Perhaps the worst thing about burnout is that it won’t just go away on its own, which means having a conversation with your boss is essential.  It may well feel uncomfortable especially since you are probably used to providing solutions in the workplace, as opposed to ‘problems’.  This time you don’t have to have all the solutions and it is perfectly ok to admit that.    When you do go to your boss, be open about the fact that you’re feeling the effects of burnout and ask for guidance.  A good boss should recognise that burnout is a leading cause of staff turnover and it’s in the interests of the organisation to retain staff, if they don’t it may be time for you to re-assess your position.

I agree this is easier said than done, however speaking with your boss about your unsustainable work situation is not a sign of weakness but a show of responsibility.

  1. Being vulnerable is not a weakness

It’s a common fallacy society has taught us that vulnerability is a weakness— Not so says Brené Brown, research professor, in fact it’s just the opposite.

“Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage,”

It is not about winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think.” Brené Brown

Vulnerability and courage allow you to have difficult conversations and almost everyone benefits from having those conversations.

Finally, take stock of your values.  Do they align with the organisation you are working with?  A disconnect between your personal values and the values of the organisation can create conflict which eventually leads to employee burnout.

Sally Healey

Chief Executive Officer

Career Development Centre